The “Superhuman Era” is coming — or are we already there?

A talk on future crime held at the University College London

The Dawes Centre for Future Crimes at the University College of London (UCL) hosts Security Science Seminar Series (for alliteration’s sake) every Wednesday to bridge the gap between academia and industry through practitioner talks. I invited Peter Joosten to speak to us about the Superhuman Era — impact, crime and ethics. Peter is a self-proclaimed biohacker or pursuer of an upgraded-self through personal experimentation and adaptation of new technology. He runs a Dutch podcast show “de Project Leven” and is the curator of “”, where he focuses on answering questions around the consequences of what he calls the “Superhuman Era” on humankind and society in terms of biotechnology, crime and law enforcement.

Image taken from Twitter of Peter at the Biohacker Summit in Stockholm in May 2018.

I was in the middle of cramming my Master’s thesis in May, keeping up to date with all the relevant conferences related to my work, when I stumbled upon the “Biohacker” Summit. It was taking place in Stockholm and most certainly fit the criteria of productive procrastination from my thesis to which I started to stream live, seeing as the next flight was way too many hours away. Playing in the background, my attention was rapidly fading as the talks were not so much biohacking-related but rather “how-to-be-healthy-and-calling-it-biohacking” focused, Peter suddenly turned it around. And so I invited him to speak at my University a few months later.

Within the Jill Dando Institute, the DAWES centre focuses on answering the question ‘Which emerging crimes should we focus upon, given limited resources?’ My research aims to identify emerging crime trends specifically from Biotechnology. The best analogy I can give, after exhausting my reference to the “Minority Report” movie starring Tom Cruise, is the one involving the introduction of cyber crime. As the internet was launched and the public became more and more tech-savvy, the emergence of cyber crime was not foreseen. Similarly, my research explores whether the same trend will occur as a result of the commercialization of various bio-technologies the more we become bio-savvy; is there a sort of “bio-crime” to emerge? So yes, I pride myself as a futurist! Now, how am I to predict crime when it has yet to occur, you may ask, invite a biohacker to give a talk to our department, I say! (Please do get in contact with me if my research sparks even the slightest of interest to you!)

Perer Joosten spooking his audience at the Security and Crime Science Seminar Series held at the University College London (UCL) as I excitingly organised!

With an x-ray of the NFC chip implanted in his left hand, between his thumb and index finger, Peter began his talk by defining what biohacking meant for him — stay tuned to my research and you’ll soon find out this is not a universal definition. He defined it as upgrading your body with technology and biology, so the chip mentioned earlier is an obvious one, but he also included things like meditation or food or even cold-water-exposure in sport recovery, namely the Wim Hoff method; using biology to improve one’s self.

Peter then passed the ball to the audience and asked what we thought future crime would look like in 20 years time after flirting with our imaginations using a compilation of sci-fi films — my favorite being the Black mirror reference. Keeping in mind that the audience must have comprised of computer science geeks or quite cynical digital agnostics, the biggest concern came out to be that of cyber warfare. Peter took the ball right back from the audience and began to discuss other trends, besides that of biohacking, that he thought played a role in what will shape crimes in the future. These trends included big data, self-quantifying wearable tech , AI and mixed reality. In other words, if you’ve been up to date with the news, we’re talking about Chinese designer babies and facial recognition surveillance, the AR pokemon game used against you, denied health insurance due to your genetic makeup — I refuse to continue listing…!

He Jiankui, maker of the first designer babies using CRISPR technology as a genetic editing tool — photo taken from the itv website.

Hastily passing the ball back to the audience, we’re seriously playing ping-pong here, Peter took a quick poll to ask the audience which trends we found most fascinating to which most replied with AI and Big Data. I really need to consider this presentation structure as a “data-collection” exercise for my PhD, if all fails!

He brought everyone up to speed on what DNA, its genetic programmable code of ATCG, how it relates to the production of proteins and its importance in healthcare — the quickest “biology 101” sanity check I’ve ever witnessed coming from a Biochemistry background, to finally start focusing on the biohacking trend. And boom — we’re back to “hot words,” with CRISPR mentioned seconds later. I was happy to hear him mention, what I call the golden references in future crimes, Marc Goodman and the article “The Biocrime Prophecy” and Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s bio-art project; both highlighting the scary amounts of DNA shedding we suffer from, that can disastrously turn against us if there is a mad terrorist — or crazy ex — that wants to devise a targeted bio-assassination. My happiness to all my golden references quickly faded when Peter used my analogy Cybercrime and Biocrime (wake up and read the intro again if you’ve forgotten), when I soon realized that he may have read my PhD research proposal online (silent giggles).

Facial reconstruction of DNA found on abandoned hair, nails and cigarette buds on the streets of New York by Bio-Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg.

An uplifting slide of the Jetson Family was presented to conclude the talk with the very diplomatic stance of Peter being neither dystopian nor utopian about what the future of emerging crime trends brings us with the rapidly evolving technology. However, he very elegantly finished by saying that he is very optimistic and as long as we are aware of both extreme scenarios, we are one step closer to finding a way to address them.

A great way to end an eerie talk, a not-so-great reminder of all the work I have to do for my research, being on the very-much-sharpest cutting edge of the field — yay me? Once again, if you’re the slightest curious of what all this biohacking talk really means, what kind of work I am doing or think you may know one or two things better than me, please do get in touch! Start wiping down surfaces with (your now portable / pocket-able spray) bleach and tell your Mom its not OK to send DNA samples to all these “find out more about your family tree and ancestry” companies — protect your print!

…………………….. Enter The Jetsons theme song now …………………………